We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in music writing.
Ericka Blount Danois
An award-winning journalist, writer, editor, and professor, Ericka Blount Danois has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vibe, Spin, The Washington Post, Wax Poetics, The Source, and Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2012. She is the author of Love, Peace, and Soul.
The Empire Strikes Back (Melissa A. Weber, Red Bull Music Academy)
Melissa A. Weber’s roller-coaster ride retrospective on George Clinton, P-Funk, Funkadelic, and various offshoots of everything funky is told with a musician’s attention to detail and a storyteller’s attention to drama. In the end, it’s Clinton’s otherworldly genius and cultural impact that can’t be denied.
How Isaac Hayes Changed Soul Music (Emily Lordi, The New Yorker)
In Emily Lordi’s insightful New Yorker feature, she illustrates how Hayes’s 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul was an exercise in Hayes commanding his own space — musically, sartorially, and physically. The album was both an act of resistance and healing during a time when Hayes was distraught over the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His insistence on being himself remade the record industry, with songs like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which ran for 18 minutes, and “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” which Lordi refers to as an “exercise in the refusal of fear and containment.”
NPR music’s critic and correspondent, previously The Los Angeles Times‘ chief pop music critic, Ann Powers is the author of Good Booty and Weird Like Us, co-author of Tori Amos: Piece By Piece, and co-editor, with Evelyn McDonnell, of the anthology Rock She Wrote
I’ve said it before: A golden age of music writing is scattering its fruits across the wild plains of the Internet. Music writing is a bastard form, journalistically unnecessary, literarily unstable, and so perfectly suitable to a virus-prone, hierarchically unstable intellectual epoch like our own. Trying to pick one or two great pieces from 2019, I fell into a vortex, revisiting instant classics, like The New York Times’ history-making investigative report about the Universal Studios fire that destroyed irreplaceable master recordings, and GQ’s powerful oral history of how sober musicians thrive creatively, and The Ringer’s illuminating trend piece about TikTok, and heartfelt stuff like this memoir in Texas Monthly. However, I had to make a choice. I started thinking about language itself. Music is language, and music encounters language; it conveys more than words can offer, but is also often bound up with them. These five pieces offer insight into this complex relationship.
I Believe I Can Lie (Kimberlé Crenshaw, The Baffler)
In the wake of the edifice-toppling documentary Surviving R. Kelly, law professor and intersectional theorist Crenshaw analyzes the lyrics to Kelly’s answer song, “I Admit,” as an example of the “SOB (Save Our Brotha”) rhetorical strategy also employed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when faced with accusations of sexual harassment.
The Poetic Consequences of K-Pop (Emily Yungmin Yoon, The Paris Review)
This deceptively modest memoir of being seen within the crowd of BTS fans speaks volumes about how pop can literally speak for its audience.
Who’s Billie Eilish? (Meaghan Garvey, The Fader)
On the surface, this appears to be just another profile of an up-and-coming pop star, but this recounting of time spent at home with the teenage oracle of Gen Z goes deeper. Author Meaghan Garvey really listens to her Eilish and her family, and she does the work of letting the singer’s words — in conversation, but also in her journals, which Garvey reads — change her perspective on her art.
A Secret Ingredient in Songs of Summer (Reggie Ugwu, The New York Times)
Over three years of listening, Ugwu identified a three-beat pattern (“boom-ch-boom-chk”) that always got him dancing: rhythm, the basic grammar of pop. This multimedia read follows it from Jamaica to Africa and the U.S., identifying an opportunistic cross-pollination, as he writes, that only benefits our playlists.
Arizona (John Edgar Wideman, The New Yorker)
Trying to find the linguistic key to a 1980s quiet storm classic by R&B lifer Freddie Jackson — “How do you offer a space with your voice that feels real enough for a listener to enter” — the 78-year-old novelist goes to a remarkably raw and poetic place in this piece of short fiction, as he contemplates pleasure, mortality, morality, and the imprisonment of his teenage son for murder the year after the song was released.
Michael A. Gonzales
The Blacklist book columnist for Catapult, cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written articles, essays, and reviews for publications including The Paris Review, Pitchfork, Wax Poetics, Mass Appeal, Complex, Longreads, and The Wire U.K.
How Isaac Hayes Changed Soul Music (Emily Lordi, The New Yorker)
While pop-cult fans know the late Stax Records singer-songwriter Isaac Hayes as the soundtrack innovator who delivered the 1972 classic “Theme from Shaft,” and the voice of the comical Chef on South Park, there was much more to him than funk and laughs. In Emily Lordi’s wonderful New Yorker feature “How Isaac Hayes Changed Soul Music,” she shows us a different side of bald-headed dude who was a friend of Martin Luther King and became very distraught when the civil rights leader was slain in 1968 within blocks of Stax. After mourning for months, Hayes put his anger and grief into making the 1969 psychedelic soul masterwork Hot Buttered Soul. Lordi’s essay presents a stellar portrait of a soul music modernizer.
For Black Women, Love Is a Dangerous Thing—“Bitter” Showed Me How to Do It Anyway (Tari Ngangura, Catapult)
One of the coolest things about original essay sites like Catapult and Longreads are the abundance of music related pieces that double as personal essays. In August, writer Tari Ngangura, published her piece For Black Women, Love Is a Dangerous Thing—“Bitter” Showed Me How to Do It Anyway, that began as a coming of age in 1999, the same year she bought and embraced Meshell Ndegeocello’s brilliant Bitter album. In the two decades since its release, the disc has served as a soundtrack and solace through various of Ngangura’s relationships. Her writing is poetic, probing and precise, and made this Bitter aficionado quite blissful.
The Ryan Adams Allegations Are the Tip of an Indie-Music Iceberg (Laura Snapes, The Guardian)
Two music stories from earlier this year are standouts to me. First is a piece by The Guardian’s deputy music editor Laura Snapes, published on Valentine’s Day. “The Ryan Adams Allegations Are The Tip Of An Indie-Music Iceberg” is not the most wieldy of titles, but the writing is crisp and incisive. Snapes speaks of a chronic indie rock condition, which reinforces and promotes misogyny even as it feigns enlightenment. “The industry has been slower to reckon with its abusers post-#MeToo than other art forms,” Snapes writes, “partly because it is built on a generally permissive culture of excess and blurred lines between work and leisure — but also because the myth of the unbridled male genius remains at its core.” Go read it. Practically every line is a pull quote.
Before & After ‘The B-52’s’ (Christopher Wiengarten, The New York Times)
On July 15, Christopher Wiengarten gave us an entire weekend’s worth of reading and listening, thanks to “Before & After ‘The B-52s’.” The Times has done this type of thing before, like with 2014s dazzling, multi-media longread “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie.” But this new one is pure Technicolor. I freely admit my own biases here ― not just because I’m helping the Bs write their first official biography — but because I’m a sucker for context, precedent, and insight. Wiengarten shows us, not just what might have been the musical parents for any given B-52s song, but what those songs subsequently inspired. Great music often leads to great music, and these stepping stones always lead to a life better-lived.
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